Wednesday, October 28, 2009

[Organic] food for thought

I consider myself a pretty informed eater.

Both working on the 2008 Farm Bill and moving to an agricultural area for law school fundamentally changed the way I think about food. In the last 3 years, I've been forced to critically examine my food choices beyond the realm of my personal taste, nutrition and health. I started becoming more vigilant about where my food came from, who raised it and under what conditions because I began to see the interconnectedness of our food choices. Law school budget or not, I feel strongly about "voting" with my dollars and to support those farms that wanted to preserve the health and environment of their customers. I decreased my meat and dairy consumption because I did not want to support concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO's) that cram animals into inhumane factory spaces and pollute the surrounding areas with manure run-off. I try to eat sustainably raised, local and organic meats, if at all, and try to eat wild-caught seafood whenever possible.

Watching "Morristown" in class last week re-affirmed my decision to eat the way I do and got me thinking yet again about our food choices. The labor conditions of the PEOPLE who worked in the chicken factories at Koch Foods horrified me. Before allowing the workers to unionized, they were soiling themselves on the work-line because they couldn't go to the bathroom more than once a day. How much worse were the chickens themselves being treated? I shuddered thinking about it. The scenes about the agricultural workers who were making little to nothing while toiling in the fields of Mexico also made me upset. I got choked up watching men my father's age squatting to pick chemical-laden tomatoes and sprinting to dump their heavy loads in still-moving trucks.

I expressed my outrage to a fellow classmate in our Rural Livelihoods class, who listened patiently to what I had to say. But after my rant, she asked a really honest question:

"Are labor conditions on organic farms better?"

I went home pondering that question. I always assumed lives for workers on organic farms was better because by virtue of the fact that they are not exposed to harsh pesticides and chemicals during production and because I knew organic farmers who worked really hard to maintain fair labor practices. No need for grape boycotts here.

But in the face of great changes within the organic and natural foods industry, is this still true? Not necessarily. In researching this issue I found that a study by the California Institute for Rural Studies on farm labor conditions on organic farms in California:
The survey findings were compared with results from the annual Farm Employers Labor Service (FELS) wage and benefit survey, which was used as a rough proxy for conventional farms. The findings indicate that organic growers appear to offer better wages than FELS respondents, and are more likely to offer profit-sharing/bonuses and food from the farm. In contrast, FELS respondents are more likely to offer health insurance, paid time off, retirement plans and employee manuals.
In this study, the size of the farm seemed to make a difference what benefits were available. For instance, a smaller, family-owned organic farm with less resources may be willing to pay its workers better wages but, like many small businesses, struggles with more organizational benefits like healthcare or retirement. But the study also showed that organic farms may provide non-traditional benefits to its workers:
The survey also elicited information about non-traditional benefits. The most commonly offered benefits include free food from the farm, personal loans and opportunities for professional development.

Nearly three-fourths (73%) of respondents report engaging in efforts to provide more year-round employment for farmworkers through a range of activities, including hiring farmworkers to paint and repair during slow seasons, producing winter crops, labor-sharing arrangements, value-added activities and cross-training.
But what about the big agribusiness guys? Once you get past the small, local farmer, what happens to the workers? In response to the growing popularity of organic products, once small organic foods companies, who had depended on close relationships with organic farmers, are now being bought out by large, traditional food companies. Could this mean that the benefits for workers under these large corporations will follow the trend of FELS?

An article on the Organic Consumer's Union states:
The social-movement component of organic farming, however, has been largely discarded. What's left, to a large degree, is quaint packaging that's strategically conceived and mass marketed to lure consumers into thinking big organic agriculture is really a sustainable mom-and-pop deal. The demand for organics continues to skyrocket, even under dismal economic conditions.

Many organic growers have responded by continuing to expand their operations and behaving similarly to their conventional counterparts. Market forces have also encouraged conventional growers to join the profitable organics movement (e.g. Driscoll's Berries and Tanimura and Antle). Many organic growers are promulgating the status quo in an industry that has kept its costs low by oppressing its workers.

"There's a real clear effort to have a stable underclass by making sure food is cheap," says Cook of Swanton Berry.

The connection between environmental conservation through organic-farming practices and labor rights, has been largely lost in much of today's organics movement.

"Environmental degradation is most often human degradation," notes Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA.

"Because farms are organic, people assume that it's an enlightened labor standard," says Michael Meuter, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance. "But that's not accurate. There are definitely labor violations on organic farms."
In light of these concerns, and the greater industrialization of organic operations, it seems like those of us who feel strongly about these issues will have to work even harder to get accurate information about where our food comes from. For me, this has meant a re-dedication to eating less processed foods, which contain so many different ingredients from so many sources that they're impossible to track. And it also means having to get to know my farmers better. Those of us in Davis are blessed to have great relationships with our farmers, and so it seems obvious that we can do a better job evaluating our food choices.

Just some food for thought.


My Organic Acres said...

hats off to you for making a decision to consume less meat after gaining knowledge on how animals are treated.

Adam W said...

Really awesome post. Kudos for taking a careful look at an aspect of organic food production that I think many people have failed to consider.

Your post clearly recognizes that food production involves many distinct yet overlapping areas of concern-- animal welfare, nutrition, law and employment. Any one of these issues rightfully deserves more attention than they're regularly given as a whole.

I'd urge all folks who are interested in these issues to remember that food products are international commodities, and the market that produces and consumes them is international as well. If we're going to become more healthy and humane as consumers by affecting how food production works in our state and country, we need to make sure we're not simply out-sourcing the more unpleasant aspects of production to places where people don't--or can't--care as much as we do.

rachel said...

Great post!

I spent a summer working at California Rural Legal Assistance and was confronted with this same question. One thing that I do think is notable about worker conditions on organic farms is that workers are at least ostensibly not exposed to pesticides-- a huge health issue for farm workers in conventional agriculture. So while I agree that "organic" doesn't solve the moral issues of being a consumer of food, it may still be better than the conventional alternative.

camp said...

Good stuff. The range of issues to consider when fueling ourselves is staggering. It's obviously an area of concern that extends far beyond the food supply chain - humans are focusing on the effects of their actions, from their food purchases to their commuting habits, in ways that they never have before. Given concerns about everything from global warming to social equity people want to ensure that their actions more fully line up with their intentions.
This interest in effects, on the full range of impacts that follow from each act, is complicated by our distance from those effects. The purchase of a banana involves a stream of far flung consequences. These impacts often remain hidden from us as supply chains stretch across continents and oceans and effects cascade temporally on to future generations....
There is a movement towards transparency. Revealing origins via a variety of standards: organic, fair trade, etc... but consumers generally face, paradoxically, both a dearth of information and information overload. The decision process can be paralyzing for even the most well intentioned and educated.
A recent effort in Sweden aims to provide a new even information for food buyers: "New labels listing the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the production of foods, from whole wheat pasta to fast food burgers, are appearing on some grocery items and restaurant menus around the country."
I suspect that this approach of new standards and metrics will continue to grow as we struggle to get a handle on the steering wheel of spaceship earth...

Chris LOK said...

Help us launch a web/mobile management app for organic farming :) !